No 'Common Policy', as Europe grapples over its future ties with Cuba

In January, Spain took over the presidency of the Council of the European Union. Despite being deeply affected by the global financial crisis, Spain confidently proclaimed ambitious objectives for its term at the head of the EU, including the cancellation of the EU’s “Common Position.” The latter defines the EU policy towards Cuba that has been in place since 1996. During his two-day visit to the Caribbean island last October, Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos stated that Spain wants “to give up the Common Position in order to obtain bilateral agreements.”

Undoubtedly the motivations behind Spain’s initiative are at least partially economic in nature. Moratinos explained that the Iberian nation has negotiated for Cuban authorities to pay their debts to Spanish companies. Cuba’s president Raúl Castro has promised to repeal the payment block of approximately $300 million due to the 280 Spanish companies currently operating in Cuba or have some other financial stake in the country. After strong opposition from Eastern European members, states such as the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia, Spain eventually withdrew its initiative allowing the EU to maintain the Common Position for the present time. In fact, such acquiescence has little or no significance for the actual Cuba policy that will be followed by individual European states, as national interests tend to outweigh supranational positions. Spain has always conducted its policy toward the Castro regime according to its primary concerns such as economic desiderata, its colonial legacy and cultural kinship. This is in stark contrast to the anti-Cuban stance of the Common Position. From the beginning, the latter was more a reflection of a prudent compromise between Eastern and Western Europe than an actual formula fixedly guiding national policy. The EU has struggled to achieve the numerous objectives obligated by adopting the Common Position.

Hidden reasons for the “Common Position“

The two main objectives of the Common Position policy have been: (1) to “encourage a process of transition to pluralist democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms,” and (2) to contribute “to a sustainable recovery and improvement of the living standards of the Cuban people.” Thereby, the EU conditions its support of Cuban economic development to progress made in democratic reforms. Although the promotion of democracy has been the declared objective of the Common Position, its companion goal was economic engagement. At its heart, the Common Position was the European response to the United States’ Helms-Burton Act, which was passed by overwhelming majorities in both Houses of Congress on March of 1996, shortly before the “Common Position” was implemented.

The Cuban Air Force shot down two American aircraft in February of 1996 flown by pilots of the Miami anti-Castro organization, “Brothers to the Rescue”. That same month, the Clinton administration passed “The Cuban Liberty Act,” also known as the Helms-Burton Act. Helms-Burton was aimed at tightening the already existing embargo against Cuba that was introduced under the Kennedy administration in 1960. Title III of Helms-Burton outlines that the U.S. intents to prosecute foreign companies “allegedly trafficking property formerly owned by US citizens but expropriated by Cuba” after the 1959 revolution. With this law, the Clinton Administration hoped to bring down the Castro regime as fast as possible, through a policy of extreme isolation and restricting access to resources. But at the same time, this policy of isolation directly threatened the trade between foreign countries and Cuba, thereby prompting retaliation action by critics of Helms-Burton in the EU member states. However, that legislation allowed the President of the United States to waive Title III every six months, so that foreign countries would not be prosecuted under its provisions. In July of 1996, Clinton aggressively encouraged Washington’s allies to accelerate change in Cuba by promising that the suspension of Title III would depend “upon whether others have joined us in promoting democracy in Cuba.” The Common Position, which was adopted by the EU member states on December 2, 1996, can be seen as an accommodative reaction to the Helms-Burton Act and the desire by Brussels to waive the appointment of Title III from being applied to its members.

Before the implementation of the Common Position, the European Union’s policy toward Cuba strived to foster constructive engagement with Havana. It sought to unconditionally promote democratic ideals and respect for human rights through informal, cultural and economic exchanges, as well as many other vehicles. The Common Position radically changed European policy by tying humanitarian aid and economic cooperation to democratic reforms and respect for human rights in Cuba. This EU policy more closely reflected the United States’ own policy on Cuba by stipulating that humanitarian aid and economic relations are dependent upon democratic change. The shift in policy had more to do with trans-Atlantic relations than with European-Cuban relations, and was primarily designed to protect business interests.

Ironically, Spain, the country that today wants to abandon the Common Position, was initially responsible for its implementation in 1996, during the incumbency of Prime Minister José María Aznar. Due to its historic close ties with Cuba, Spain has influenced European policy toward the island nation more than any other member of the EU. In 1996, Spain was Cuba’s number one European trading partner and was particularly exposed to the negative impact of the Helms-Burton Act. In response, it pursued a change in European policy toward Cuba to secure its own investments on the island. The conservative government under Aznar initiated the Common Position against the consensus of many European ministers. Spain initially based the Common Position on pragmatic objectives, not on any long-term ideological vision.

National interests outmatch supranational strategy

Although the “Common Position” implies a common European policy, there are different and even contradictory policies toward Cuba to be found within the EU. Germany and the United Kingdom maintain a similar stance toward Havana to that of the US. However, France, Belgium and Portugal favour a policy of stronger engagement. Due to Cuba’s historic, unflinching support of Moscow’s communist regime, the eastern states of the EU maintain an critical position toward Cuba. The Eastern states prefer to focus their policy on strengthening democracy and promoting human rights on the island, along with relying upon an assortment of anti-Havana diplomatic deployments.

After a short period under Aznar, in 1996-97, Spain began to ease away from backing the Common Position and since then has shifted its priorities by crafting policy more akin to its domestic economic interests. After Cuba jailed 75 dissidents in June of 2003, the EU decided, at Spain’s behest, to review its Cuba policy. This review resulted in a commitment to limit high-level government visits, reduce member states’ participation in cultural events in Cuba and invite representatives of dissident groups and spouses of political prisoners to national day receptions. Consequently, Fidel Castro boycotted all European-related diplomatic functions. As a result, a number of European countries moved to scale back their embassies’ interactions with Havana officials. In 2005, many European countries, again led by Spain, suspended the earlier 2003 diplomatic measures. By 2008, Spain was working to fully lift the various diplomatic restraints against Cuba by rejecting US pleas to maintain the status quo regarding diplomatic pressure on the island. During his visit to Havana, Spain’s foreign minister Moratinos carefully avoided meetings with Cuban dissidents. Now in 2010, Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero has moved to cancel the “Common Position” altogether.

Human Rights in Cuba

Cuba is the only nation in Latin America lacking a cooperation agreement with the EU. Also, groups such as Mercado Común del Sur MERCOSUR, the Andean Community, The United States-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and the Caribbean Community have already initiated regional agreements with the EU. Furthermore, the Caribbean countries have signed the Cotonou Agreement, a pact between the EU, African, Caribbean and Pacific group of states aimed at reducing poverty and promoting criminal justice in those regions, along with addressing trade matters. But any agreement between the EU and Cuba is not possible because of the Common Position, which demands a democratic transition and the respect of human rights in the country before economic assistance can be extended to the island nation.

This being said, not much has changed since the implementation of the Common Position; Cuba has not been transformed into a democratic society under the rule of the Castros, who have led the state for 50 years. In November 2009, the middle-of-the-road Human Rights Watch (HRW) published the report “New Castro, Same Cuba,” its first report on human rights in Cuba since Fidel Castro took leave of the presidency in June of 2006 due to illness. While observers hoped Cuba would become more democratic after Raúl took over in 2008, the report charges that, in fact, he has established new laws that restrict freedom of speech and criminalize any opposing opinions.

According to the report, individuals who are deemed a threat to Raúl Castro’s reign are imprisoned “before they have planned or committed any crime.” Human rights organizations such as HRW perhaps intemperately criticize Spain’s intention to give up the Common Position, as “it would send the signal that the EU does not care about the fate of political prisoners in Cuba. If the EU wants to improve the human rights situation in Cuba it must strengthen its present Cuba policy and make it more effective rather than dismiss it,” says Latin America director of HRW, José Miguel Vivanco.

No common policy

The Common Position’s impact on Cuban policy has been negligible. While Cuba remains the only Latin American country without cooperation agreements and a regular political dialogue with the EU, its unilateral trade and diplomatic lines to individual EU members is an adequate substitute for Brussels support.

Despite their ability to speak with one voice most of the time, ultimately, the interests in the bloc of 27 states are too diverse, pluralistic and multipolar to always be able to act as one. Although the Common Position is supposed to affect the national foreign policy of every European country, “there are many ways to undermine it,” said Prof. Philip Brenner, Cuban expert at American University. Over 20 bilateral agreements between Cuba and European states have been signed, indicating that although a Common EU Position formally exists toward Havana. In reality there is no common policy, at least not on this issue.

Evgenij Haperskij is a research associate at the Washington, DC-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), on whose website this article first appeared.